The debate was supposed to be over on that June day in 1984 when then premier Bill Davis rose to announce that his government planned to extend full funding to Catholic schools.
But the debate never really ended. It just went underground for the better part of two decades.
Twenty-three years ago, when Davis and the Conservatives came onside, all three parties in the Legislature were in agreement on the issue.
This all-party consensus rested on two principles: The Catholics should get full funding, for historical and constitutional reasons, and no other religious groups were entitled to public support for their schools.
While other religious groups pursued their case in the courts (unsuccessfully) and at the United Nations (successfully, for what it was worth), the consensus held firm. Until 2001, that is, when the last budget of the Mike Harris regime included a tax credit for parents whose kids were attending private schools.
The tax credit became an issue in the 2003 provincial election campaign, and the Liberals moved quickly to repeal it after assuming office.
Conservative Leader John Tory – who, by the way, was instrumental in the Catholic schools issue back in 1984 as Davis’s principal secretary – has promised to restore some form of funding for “faith-based schools.” But he has yet to provide any details of his plan.
The problem for John Tory is how to define “faith-based,” given that elite schools like Upper Canada College have Anglican roots. The Conservatives could insist on a means test, but that would alienate many advocates of funding for religious schools. Ira Walfish, chair of the Multi-Faith Coalition for Equal Funding of Faith-Based Schools, notes that parents who send their children to publicly funded Catholic schools are not subjected to a means test and adds: “We want equity and we want fairness.”
The issue surfaced at Queen’s Park last week when backbench Liberal MPP Peter Fonseca introduced a motion opposing “any attempt to take public money and hand it over to private schools.”
Fonseca says his motion was motivated in part by a desire to smoke out Tory on the issue.
If so, it backfired by roiling some of Fonseca’s Liberal colleagues – especially those representing ridings with large numbers of children in Jewish, Muslim or Christian Fundamentalist schools. They have been trying to soften the Liberals’ stand on funding of religious schools and saw Fonseca’s motion as, in the words of one, “a sharp stick in the eye.”
Embarrassingly for Fonseca, only half-a-dozen Liberal MPPs showed up for the vote on his motion, which was defeated.
One of the absent Liberals was Mario Racco, whose Thornhill riding is about 30 per cent Jewish. When asked by a Jewish constituent where he stood on the motion, Racco emailed back: “I do not understand why Peter Fonseca would introduce such a resolution, but it got the result it deserved.”
Racco then added this intriguing note: “I hope you are happy with the $15 million we donated for the new Jewish centre in Vaughan.”
This was a reference to the $15 million government grant from the so-called “slush fund” to the UJA (United Jewish Appeal) Federation. The grant is to help finance development of three Jewish community centres, including one in Vaughan.
The buzz at Queen’s Park – vehemently denied by the government – is that this money is meant to compensate for the government’s decision not to fund Jewish and other religious schools. One Liberal MPP describes the thinking behind it this way: “Here’s $15 million, so don’t beat us up on the funding of faith-based schools.”
If that is the aim, it will probably fail. “It (the grant) won’t prevent us from advocating for fair funding for faith-based schools,” says Howard English, vice-president of the UJA Federation.
Meanwhile, on another front there is a push for a single public school system – that is, for an end to public funding of Catholic schools.
Several public boards have already passed resolutions to this effect, and while all the parties in the Legislature have disowned the idea, the Greens have made it part of their platform.
The situation is very fluid right now, and it is difficult to predict where it will end up. Suffice it to say that the debate over funding of religious schools – Catholic or otherwise – has resurfaced.
…this post forwarded by J.Mac after a May 2, 2007 article in The Toronto Star by Ian Urquhart